• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

SOMETHING YOU HAVEN'T SEEN BEFORE & OTHER EYE-OPENERS

Here's something you probably haven't seen elsewhere:


It's Steve Williams' "hero" card.

Scott Riggs hasn't won a NASCAR race this season and didn't qualify for the Nextel Cup Chase, but some creative thinking has made Valvoline a big winner, thanks to Williams. Oh, and his boss, Tiger Woods.

Tiger's current run of five consecutive wins -- including the British Open and PGA Championship "majors" -- has been an exposure ace for Valvoline, which has an unusual sponsorship with Williams, Woods' caddy. The oil company's logo, on Williams' shirt, has been clearly visible on worldwide TV and in wire service photos. One, in color, made the front page of USA Today when Tiger took the Open. There have been stories about the innovative deal on Bloomberg News and in the New York Daily News. "Steve's a savvy pro at his job, and as a marketer," said Valvoline spokesman Barry Bronson.

Williams, who says he's a NASCAR fan, races a Valvoline-sponsored car in his native New Zealand. Woods even took a few laps during a visit earlier this year. A bit of out-of-the-box brainwork -- a commodity in short supply these days -- that has paid off in publicity value far beyond the undisclosed cash worth of the contract.
Of all the dumb things that have happened since the Indy Racing League split from Champ Car (then CART) in 1996, the dumbest idea yet was the one to come out of the IRL's Sonoma race. That being the two groups might stage some combo weekends including both series. While the political and logistical challenges would be daunting -- How would such an event be promoted without further confusing an already disinterested public? Which one would be the "featured attraction" on Sunday and which would be the Saturday "support" event? Who would get the preferred paddock space for transporters and motorhomes? -- what really got my head shaking was the notion this would demonstrate "goodwill." You betcha!

Trust me, one of the first things you'd see would be the press release (and whispering to friendly media) from whichever group had the quicker cars on the shared circuit. It would be classic "our cars are faster than your cars" in-your-face spinning.

Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven owe it to all their constituency groups -- drivers, owners, mechanics, promoters, sponsors, media and most of all the FANS -- to once-and-for-all lock themselves away for serious and final negotiations. Either announce a deal to reunify U.S. open-wheel racing or call the whole thing off. But don't waste one more second on this ridiculous "doubleheader" concept!
Last week, I urged NHRA to use the Big Go to get the Big Mo. That is, take the opportunity of the U.S. Nationals to pro-actively work to gain national media momentum for the drag racing series. I have to say they gave it a good go. Including a USA Today special ad section. It might well have been the biggest hard-news week in the organization's history, with Kenny Bernstein's unretirement to drive a Monster Energy drink-sponsored Funny Car topping the list. NHRA revealed its version of a playoff-style "Countdown to the Championship" format. The first eight in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle will advance after the 17th of 23 events. Four drivers in each pro class will remain after four more races, with the titles to be decided in the last two contests, at Las Vegas and Pomona. I guess it's worth a try, but expectations should be modest. The championships are too geographically-limited and two races doesn't strike me as quite fair to choose champs. Of course, I don't think 3-of-5 in the opening round of the baseball post-season is historically legitimate, given the sport's classic seven-game format. I wish NHRA had made the finals at least three nationals long. You could argue this attempt at a playoff is truer to the original stick-and-ball version than NASCAR's, since drivers actually will be eliminated, but that fails to acknowledge NHRA's long-established basic race format already eliminates competitors every round.

I'm glad prize money will increase, but it still comes up short. The new payouts will be $500,000 bonuses for the Top Fuel and Funny Car titlists, $250,000 for Pro Stock, and $75,000 for the best biker. Shifting Topeka out of the shadow cast by Indianapolis and Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend makes sense. As does moving to an upgraded facility in Ohio (closer to Detroit) and bringing the motorcycles to the Texas Motorplex. Now, would NHRA please increase its website's server capacity! The long delay -- and sometimes failure -- to be able to connect is maddening for fans of a sport that isn't on "live" TV. NHRA needs to go to "live" results right on its home page.Rusty Wallace -- who I've known and liked for a quarter-century -- can take off his rookie stripes after Sunday's IRL finale at Chicagoland. Doing the Indy Car shows helped Wallace learn the TV biz before ABC/ESPN takes over the NASCAR rights next year. The League has used 10 percent ethanol this season, and plans on 100 percent next year, so Rusty has seen and commented on that innovation.

The news release came the day after Sonoma that Wallace had joined Earth Biofuels, Inc. (trades on the Nasdaq Bulletin Board under the symbol EBOF) of Dallas, as a spokesman and advisory board member. Quoting from the company's handout: "Mr. Wallace joins fellow advisory board member Julia Roberts and Board of Directors members country music legend Willie Nelson and actor Morgan Freeman in promoting the use of renewable fuels such as Earth Biofuels' biodiesel and ethanol."

More from the release: "Earth Biofuels produces and distributes biodiesel fuel through the company's network of wholesale and retail outlets. The fuel is sold under Willie Nelson's brand name, 'BioWillie.' The Company is focused on capitalizing on the growing demand for alternative and renewable fuels in the domestic market."
One of NASCAR's earliest and best-ever PR decisions was to position its brand of motorsport as being as patriotic as mom, apple pie and, yes, Chevrolet. This gave NASCAR, unlike the open-wheel series, enormous red-white-and-blue credibility with the public post-Sept. 11. Bill France Jr. famously said at the start of the Iraq conflict that NASCAR fans "are the kind of people who go to war, and win wars, for America."

ISC's California Speedway, though, came a bit too close to the line with its TV spot for the Labor Day weekend races. (See it at CaliforniaSpeedway.com). I understand the concept but I wish it had been more vigorously vetted. American race fans, especially at a time of war, "pledge allegiance" only to the flag of the United States -- not the checkered flag.
EXTREME HYPE ALERT: Katie Couric debuts TONIGHT (!) as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

NO, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP: I expressed surprise the other week that CBS wasn't using a countdown clock to mark the days, hours and minutes until Couric's debut. Well, MSNBC.com is doing exactly that, leading up to Meredith Viera's Sept. 13 bow as co-host of Today (!)

[ more Thursday . . . ]